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FACE TO FACE – another short story published in iScot Magazine









Issue 88 of iScot is out and includes another one of my short stories.



Face to Face is a futuristic imagination of what could happen to the provision of care if technocrats and bureaucrats are let loose to do their worst.





I wrote this story after a period of reflection on some of the difficulties GPs can face when trying to access necessary care for vulnerable people.


In this case, I am speculating about the future of mental health provision.


But, in the words of Crimewatch presenters,


DON'T HAVE NIGHTMARES!


Our health service is superb and will never go this way.

I hope




FACE TO FACE

A short story

by N J Edmunds


A woman pushed the door inwards, against him, entering whether Ewan liked it or not. He stepped back, confused, and she breezed past him into the living space. When she’d set two clanking bags on the counter between the kitchen and sitting areas, she called back to him. Angry words.

"What took you? I was knocking for ages. The shopping’s heavy. Give me a hand – it won’t unpack itself."

Ewan had never seen her before.

His soles scuffed on the threadbare carpet as he shuffled along the hall, pausing to straighten his mother when he passed her picture. The woman was putting tins into the cupboard under the sink: kidney beans and spaghetti.

"You might have washed the breakfast dishes,” she said over her shoulder. “What have you been doing? On your phone, I suppose?" She turned, smiling now and sighing. "You’ll never change."

His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he was glad to look away. Three notifications clawed at him, urging him to check them. The game was addictive.

“I’ll do it, then," she humphed, stuffing empty plastic bags into her pocket. Running the tap, she tested the water with her hand. "Are you really sure this boiler’s okay? It takes ages to heat up."

How does she know that? He shook his head and turned to go back to the bedroom.

"Bring your mug, will you? You left it on the floor again!" He returned with the yellow mug, ‘EWAN’ in large green capitals on its side.

Who’s Ewan?

"Are you watching that film again? You only saw it yesterday." The woman had opened his room door where the TV blared.

“Broadsword calling Danny Boy. Broadsword calling Danny Boy.” Ewan liked Richard Burton’s voice.

The woman frowned. "It’s like ‘Groundhog Day’ in here. Every bloody day!"

"It’s not. It’s called ‘Where Eagles Dare’,” he replied. “It’s a new one."

"Oh, you can speak, can you?" she said sneering as she turned to go back to the kitchen. “You hardly ever open your mouth."

I’ve never seen her before. Who is she?

She made him uncomfortable so he closed his bedroom door, muting her sarcasm.

"Okay, I’ll clean up, will I? You do your own thing, I’ll be your skivvy. I’ll make dinner. Always the bloody same!" He turned up the TV volume.

Sitting on the edge of the unmade bed, he wondered what to do. As usual, his thoughts raced, reverberating round his head. Who is she? Why is she here? Who’s Ewan? Where is this?

Lying on the bed to fight off panic, he pulled the crumpled duvet over his head. Traces of Kate’s perfume. Her gentle touch and presence calmed him a little, and the droning of the Heinkel engine on the TV blended with the strange woman’s muffled rambling. His eyelids became heavy.

#

Woken by persistent buzzing, Ewan rolled over to reach for his phone. Eleven game updates!

But the noise continued. It wasn’t his phone. Looking at his wrist tag, he read the scrolling text.

“hello ewan it is time for your session it is wednesday afternoon it is your day for your FACE-TO-FACE go now to the CENTRE please - - - hello ewan it is time for your session it is wednesday afternoon - - - ”

When he pressed the pause button the small green screen told him he would be reminded in 15 minutes. It would keep reminding him until he turned up at the Centre. Only going through the scanner would turn it off, and he didn’t want to be spazzed.

What’s face-to-face?

He had no code, but leaving his Special Apartment was easy. He had been summoned, and the triple-locked door swished open as he approached. Tag prompts led him along a two-lane path where he joined other souls trudging to and from the Centre. On other routes, users moved more quickly, streaming in dizzying numbers down myriad branching tracks, never straying. He remembered the film he’d seen in school biology, just yesterday he thought it was. Corpuscles flowing through magnified capillaries.

Ewan’s path didn’t intersect with busier routes. Occasionally someone joined his lane or slipped off down a branch towards a Special Apartment. A woman a little way in front of him looked half asleep and drifted to the edge of her lane. Jolting, she jerked back into line. Her ankle sensor had spazzed her.

When he passed through the door to the Centre, the muted traffic rumble and confusing babble of a busy city were displaced by loud music in his right earbud. He was enjoying the song and trying to listen to the words when it was interrupted by a voice. Calming intonations.

“Hello, Ewan. Welcome back to the Centre. Are you enjoying your favourite music?”

What is that music? I feel like I have heard it before. Who’s Ewan?

“It’s your favourite song, Ewan. You told us on your first day here. ‘Coz I Luv You’ by ‘Slade’. The 70s pop band were very popular in their day. A good choice, Ewan. Well done!”

Never heard of them.

“Today is your day for Face-to-Face, Ewan. Isn’t that exciting?”

Face-to-face?

“Proceed to the blue chair, Ewan. Your Face-to-Face will begin when you sit down.”

A blue chair on the other side of the room lit up, and blue arrows marked a path across the wheaten carpet. He toed the line and sat down facing a pale blue wall.

“Well done, Ewan!” said his earbud. “Your Face-to-Face will now start.”

At eye level was an illuminated sign.

YOUR BUSINESS IS EVERYBODY’S BUSINESS

The Supreme Consultants for Efficiency in Medical Advances

have proved that

confidentiality

was an inefficient concept

and bad for society.

S.C.H.E.M.A.

The slogan faded out, and in its place was a screen. A circle of six uniformed people sat facing outwards, away from each other. Each wore a headset, and five of them were looking at screens. The sixth was a smiling, illuminated girl. Facing Ewan, she commanded his attention. He’d never seen her before and felt a pang of excitement. Could she be my mother?

Her voice grated when spoke into his left earbud. "How are you this week – err – Ewan?"

A familiar panic began to inflate his chest. "Who are you? What is this? Why—?"

“I’m Carol, and your records tell me I spoke to you at your Face-to-Face three weeks ago."

"What the hell is a face-to-face?”

There was a short and painful sting in all of his limb sensors. A deeper voice in his other ear barked, “Profanity!”

"Oh, Ewan, come now,” the left earbud continued. “Your record says you said that last week, and that you ask the same thing every time. You know very well your Face-to-Face is individualised and essential therapy, recommended by the High Consultant and guaranteed to help holistically with your mental health problems. Now, let me call up my script — I mean your script, of course! I must stop saying that, the HC will be listening in."

"Therapy for what? There’s nothing wrong with me."

"Oh, come now, Billy – I mean Ewan – let me see, yes, it says here since your accident 3 years ago you have had memory failure — that explains a lot doesn’t it? And your wife died and your brain surgery––“

"What? My wife? Nonsense, I saw her this morning, she went out to work. Before that other woman turned up."

"Oh, Ewan, not this again! Your notes show that you’ve been told all this every week since you came here. I remember you now. You’re the one I mistook for a burnt-out schizophrenic. Silly me."

"My wife? What’s happened to her? Kate was fine this morning. Was there an accident?"

"Oh, Ewan! For goodness sake! And what did you say about another woman in your apartment?”

"She came in with shopping. She knew where to put it all, in the cupboards. And she knew about the hot water."

“Don’t be silly, Ewan, there’s no woman there. Maybe you’re hallucinating. We had a good lecture about hallucinations. The High Consultant beamed it to us this week. People like you see and hear things. Your mind, or what’s left of it, of course," – a brief smile flashed over her face before she continued – "makes things up to replace what you’ve forgotten."

Ewan wondered if what he was feeling might be hatred.

"She’s there! Or she was when I left. Come and see if you like."

"You know I can’t do that, Ewan. I’m talking to you from the Therapy Control Centre in Coventry. But I think your yearly Care Assessment Visit is due soon — let me see — yes, it’s this Friday. Isn’t that lucky? Then you can show the Assessor if there’s been a person there. But I’m sorry, Ewan, it is all a sort of dream. Except what I told you about your accident, and Kate dying, and all…"

He slumped, letting out a moan. When he lifted his head he felt tears rolling down his cheeks.

"Ewan? Oh, dear. Don’t. Stop it. I am not qualified in grief. I’m not allowed to help you if you cry. Ewan, stop it. Stop it at once! Ewan, if you don’t stop crying I am going to have to terminate this face-to-face therapeutic event. Ewan!"

The screen went blank, and was replaced after a few seconds with a scrolling message in red capitals which read

“YOUR SESSION HAS BEEN TERMINATED FOR NON-COOPERATION.”

‘Coz I Luv You’ resumed in his ear, but was soon replaced by ‘Lonely Goatherd’ from ‘The Sound of Music’. He knew the song and it made his flesh creep.

Funny how songs can do that.

Then an announcement, in the deep, commanding voice, “Stand up, turn round, and follow the red path to the door, then proceed to your apartment. You have forfeited your Centre visit.”

Unable to remember why he had been crying, Ewan did as he was bid, and was soon ushered out of the automatic door by red arrows and the voice in his earbud.

The pathway was quiet. Now tired, on the way home he was spasmed after veering to the edge of his designated channel.

In his apartment, there was a woman in the living space. He had never seen her before.

"Ah, you’re back. I thought I was going to miss you. I’ll have to go once I’ve unloaded these." The woman was emptying bags.

#

He sat down in his bedroom and ate his meals on wheels. Singing ‘Coz I Luv You’, he munched his nutricake and drank his 5aDay. Clint Eastwood was in Nazi uniform in what appeared to be a castle. He’d never seen this film before but had the feeling he was going to enjoy it. The credits rolled, Ewan cried, and another film started. Ewan hadn’t seen this one, either. “Broadsword calling Danny Boy.” He was transfixed by the blonde serving girl with the inviting cleavage. Is she my mother? Lascivious soldiers were vying for her attention. Ewan was relieved when Richard Burton stepped in to halt their vulgar advances.

A siren sounded in his head, before an officious command from his earbud.

“This is Friday. Go immediately to your door. Your yearly Care Assessment Visit is about to start.”

Passing Mona Lisa on the wall he straightened her. My mother, he thought. The door opened before he reached it.

"Hello, Ewan Mitchell. I can hardly believe it’s a year since your last visit. Can you?" A cheerful woman in a blue overall carried a tablet in her right hand, typing into it as she scanned the hallway and looked him up and down. Marching into his bedroom, she switched the TV off and sat down in the only chair.

She’s left-handed. My mother is left-handed. Is she my mother?

"Now, let’s see. What did I write about you last year, Ewan? Oh! It wasn’t me who did you. Sorry, I’m always doing that. Thought I’d been here before. Ah well, they all look the same!"

"Who are you? Have you come to get rid of the woman in the kitchen?"

"What? Oh, yes, I read something in your notes. You’re having hallucinations."

"I’m not, she is there now. She came this morning, just after Kate left for work. I’ve never seen her before today."

"Kate? Ah, yes, your late wife. I read about that, you must still be very sad about her death."

His head whirled.

"Who’s dead? The woman in the kitchen?"

"There is no one in the kitchen, Ewan, you’re imagining it."

"Come and see if you don’t believe me." He went out, and as he approached the door to the living space the Assessor followed him, sighing.

"This is a waste of my time, Mr Mitchell. Mind you, I’ve got to inspect the whole flat for damage, and I’ve only got ten minutes, and I have to write my notes and get to the next one by half past, the caseload is getting ridic…. Mr Mitchell! Have you got a guest in the flat?"

The Assessor paused behind him at the door, through which they could both hear a woman singing. “I’m in love with a man from Texas, Texas, Texas.”

"Wait a minute. I know that song. It’s Geraldine’s therapy tune. She’s bloody wandered again!"

When the door swung open, Ewan could see the woman putting tins in the cupboard. Kidney beans and spaghetti.

"God, I’m good at this job! I knew I’d been to this flat before! Come on, Geraldine, let’s get you back to your new flat.” The overalled woman walked in and started putting the tins back in their plastic bag. “You moved out of here last summer, Geraldine. You ought to have been spazzed. Your sensors must be faulty. Just as well someone knows what they’re doing, eh?"

#

Clint and Richard were on the roof of a cable car when Ewan’s earbud said,

“hello ewan it is time for your session it is wednesday afternoon go now to the Centre please hello ewan it is time for your session it is wednesday afternoon – – – ”

END

Copyright: N J Edmunds

September 2023

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